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Editorial> The Seaport Adrift
Alan G. Brake calls for strong government oversight of the South Street Seaport redevelopment.
Courtesy SHoP

At press time, the founder of the New Amsterdam Market, Rovert LaValva, announced the end of the pop-up artisanal food market, which he had long hoped to make a permanent food hall in the historic South Street Seaport. LaValva accused Lower Manhattan Council Woman Margaret Chin of betraying the community and bemoaned her closeness to the Seaport’s primary owner, The Howard Hughes Corporation. AN immediately reached out to Chin for comment, and she called LaValva’s statement “false” and vowed to continue to work with the board of the New Amsterdam Market to try and give it a permanent home at the Seaport.

While the LaValva/Chin spat makes for good copy, it also speaks to a larger sense of rudderlessness at the Seaport. Still only semi-recovered from Hurricane Sandy, the Seaport is very much in limbo. Pier 17, the old mall that anchored the Seaport festival marketplace in a suburban commercial milieu, which caused many New Yorkers to scorn the area, has been demolished. An updated, glassy, grass-and-performance-venue-topped shopping mall designed by SHoP will replace it. The other primary 1970s-era shopping building is closed, cleared of tenants, its fate unclear. The so-called Tin Building, which would have been relocated for a giant also-SHoP designed tower (that plan has since been scuttled), remains in place. The old Fulton Fish market building is empty.

The South Street Seaport museum, which owns the collection of ships—many of which are badly decaying and in need of restoration or relocation—as well as the string of early 19th century buildings known as Schermerhorn Row, is operating with a skeletal staff. Following an unsuccessful partnership with the Museum of the City of New York, its fate is highly uncertain.

Hughes is staging events and has created the now familiar shipping container food stand/shopping area to keep the area active. But it lacks the vitality of most New York City neighborhoods.

All this begs the question, what do we want the Seaport to be? Hughes obviously wants a return on its investment, and it wants to build out at the maximum allowable square feet. But the line between the public and private has always been blurry at the Seaport, and if anything, the public needs a larger stake in its future.

The seemingly outlandish Seaport City plan, which would create massive blocks long East River version of Battery Park City under the guise of flood protection, is advancing. The ever-powerful Economic Development Corporation is privately and publicly pushing for it. The mayor with his single focus on affordable housing could be seduced by this clumsy idea. He should resist it.

Not only would Seaport City destroy or neuter the just built East River Park, it would also further sever the Seaport itself from its namesake connection to the water. A more enlightened approach would be to integrate movable floodwalls under the FDR, as advocated by BIG and Starr Whitehouse’s Rebuild by Design plan.

More importantly, how can the Seaport itself be reconceived to connect better to its surroundings, to include non-mall elements like housing, to become a distinctive but more authentic neighborhood? Developers, preservationists, and community groups want vastly different things for the area. The mayor and the Department of City Planning should take a stronger hand here and insist that this important but fragile and under realized area meet its full potential. A master planning process, ideally one led by a world-class design team without financial interests in the area (i.e. not SHoP), which would represent all these interests, is sorely needed. A fancy food hall might be a great complement to the area, but let a good planning process bear that out.

Alan G. Brake